A Brief Background


A Brief Background

James VI and I, for all his faults, could be extremely canny and politically astute. His successor, Charles I, could be more easily swayed and influenced by advisors. Where he was unfailing, however, was in his belief in the Divine Right of the Monarch. This meant that he believed that as well as being the infallible ruler of a country, the monarch was also the spiritual head of the Church. For the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland, this was not an acceptable stance – a king could not be  equal or superior to God – and it became the lethal sticking point. Tract writing and urban riots gave way to the raising of armies, skirmishes and battles. The unrest lasted for around 60 years, and it culminated in religious and political intransigence, intolerance and extremism. It may have begun with the anecdotal hurling of a stool at a dean’s head in St Giles in Edinburgh, but it and in hundreds of deaths through the years of the early 1680s, which became known as “The Killing Times”.

The history of the Covenanters and the Covenanting struggle is a convoluted meld of religion, politics and powermongering. Initially, the Scottish Covenanters were in alliance with the English Parliamentarian factions, with both of them suspicious and fearful that Charles’ modification of the Anglican church could signal a resurgence of dominant Catholicism in England and Scotland,  thanks to the influence of his wife, the Catholic Henrietta Maria, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud

Signing the National Covenant of 1638

Charles I tried to exercise his right as the spiritual head of the country by forcibly introducing the Book of Common Prayer into every Scottish pulpit in 1637. The intention was to make the main churches of England and Scotland and their teachings more uniform. It was done without any consultation with the Scottish Parliament or the Assembly of the Kirk. Instead, a Book of Canons was imposed, which was to replace John Knox’s Book of Discipline as the authoritative text for the structural organisation of the Kirk. In addition, a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer was imposed upon the pulpits throughout the country. There was outrage throughout Scotland: it was seen as a blatant attempt to Anglicise the Church and reduce Presbyterianism – and that excited the abiding fear among the Presbyteries that Catholicism could regain a dominant foothold. There had been other Covenants drawn up in the face of perceived Catholic attempts on Presbyterian doctrine and policy: the first was signed by The Lords of Congregation – Protestant nobles who opposed Mary, Queen of Scots marriage with the French Dauphin – viewing this as a threat to the Protestant cause in Scotland. The second was drawn up in 1581, and was signed by James VI and his household and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and subscription to it was renewed in 1590 and 1596. However, the current King’s signature was not on any Covenant: it was essential, in the Covenanting lords’ opinion, that a new, revitalised Covenant was drawn up.

Tracts were published opposing the use of the Book of Common Prayer, but action, as ever, seemed a more favourable form of protest. The famous anecdote about Jenny Geddes in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Kirk  dates from this time. It is said that on July 23rd 1637, the Dean of Edinburgh, Mr James Hannay, started to read from the Book of Common Prayer. Jenny in a fury hurled her “cuttie” or “creepy” stool at his head, shouting “Deil gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?”. That was the start of a day of riots and disturbances in Edinburgh, which spread throughout Scotland. Both sides became intractable, but the King could impose laws and decrees to force his subjects into obedience, or so it was believed. It became treason not to use the Book of Common Prayer and many ministers who refused were expelled from their parishes.

The response came some six months or so after the incident in St Giles. On February 28 1638, the first signing of the revived Scottish National Covenant took place in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, and then copies were distributed throughout the country for signing. The signatories to these documents included many Scots noblemen as well as churchmen -men such as Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll, Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, and James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose.

The Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliament

The Covenanting Scots gained control of the General Assembly. They could count among their numbers able and dedicated lords, and received parliamentary and monetary support from the English Parliament. They had war declared upon them twice by Charles in 1639 and 1640. These were known as The Bishop’s Wars and resulted in a series of skirmishes. In the West and in the North East of Scotland, certain factions used the state of war to settle and advance old scores – such as Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll mustering 4000 of his Campbell levies and pursuing the Stewart chiefs. Perhaps the most influential battles were the battles at The Brig of Dee (June 1639) and Newburn (August 1640).

At the Brig of Dee, the Covenanting force were led by Montrose, who ordered the bombardment of the Brig of Dee and routed the Royalists out of Aberdeen, which had been successively occupied by both sides.

Alexander Leslie led the Covenanting troops at Newburn and defeated the Royalists. This Covenanting victory left Newcastle open to the Covenanters, and they occupied Northumberland and Durham, with support from the English Parliament, for around a year.

The result of skirmishes and battles resulted in both sides coming together to discuss and agree to peace treaties which skirted around the main points of contention and therefore could only provide temporary cessation to the tense, brutal situation. Men – perhaps most famously Montrose – changed sides, for political, religious or personal reasons.

As well as religious and political uprising in Scotland and England, there was also similar uprising in Ireland for the Catholic cause. There was often military action on three different fronts at the same time, so a loss of ground in one country could be balanced by victory in another.

While many Covenanters were concerned when Charles was captured and handed over to Cromwell and his  New Model Army, the opportunity was seized to impose hard-line presbyterianism in Scotland – the so-called The Rule of the Saints.

Breaking Factions

The execution of the Charles I did little to provide peace or settlement. The Scots proclaimed Charles II as king, while England was declared a republican Commonwealth.

This was the beginning of the end of the alliance between the Scottish Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians. The Covenant required a monarch to acknowledge it, after all. The next year, when Charles I’s son, also called Charles, arrived off the shores of the North-East of Scotland, his signature was sought – or perhaps demanded  – off the shore at Garmouth, and the Covenant had the monarch’s acquiescence – no matter that Charles was acting under political expediency, rather than a devotion to the Covenant.

Cromwell retaliated with an invasion of Scotland, resulting in a series of bloody stand-offs and battles. Cromwell could have been forced back over the border from his last stance at Dunbar, but the Covenanting forces’ leaders, which included men such as Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, demanded that the ungodly factions be removed from their army. While the remaining forces may have been devout, the most efficient soldiers, who tended to be less godly in their demeanour and actions, had more or less been removed. The Battle of Dunbar was fought on 3rd September 1650. Cromwell’s force won, taking 10 000 prisoners and killing round 4000 men – the rest of the Covenanting army fled – as did the Town Council and Kirk Session of Edinburgh the very next day, fearing what Cromwell’s actions might be. The young King, Charles II, removed himself  to France, where he remained in exile until after Cromwell’s death and the failure of Richard Cromwell to sustain the rule of his father.